Reza Aslan can’t help but chuckle when he looks back on the 1980s, for he says he spent much of the decade pretending to be Mexican.
The Iranian-born immigrant mastered break dancing and embraced the nickname “El Pinguino,” (The Penguin) a nod to his bowlegs. Assuming an alternate ethnic identity suited a singular purpose for the young Aslan, who came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 7.
“I was scrubbing myself clean of any hint of my ethnicity or my religion,” says Aslan, whose mother was a less than enthusiastic Muslim and whose father was a more than enthusiastic atheist. “It was not the best time to be Iranian in America.”
Two decades later, Aslan — author of the bestseller “Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” — still seems to be calibrating his identity in small but telling ways. Even as he has achieved phenomenal success as the author of well-crafted religious history books that appeal to a mass audience, he’s eager — perhaps overeager — to present himself as a formidable academic with special bona fides in religion and history.